WASHINGTON -- I asked a presidential aide recently whether Thomas White's days as secretary of the Army are numbered. "Haven't looked into it," was the terse reply. That lack of unequivocal support is no death sentence, but implies that the Whites should rent rather than buy the suburban home they seek as more suitable for their dogs than the Washington riverfront condo they just sold. The former general may be the Bush administration's first victim claimed by the Enron scandal.
But why? As a nuts-and-bolts manager during 11 well-paid years at Enron, White had nothing to do with shady off-the-books accounting that ultimately sunk the firm. The case cannot even be made that White knew of Enron's imminent demise when he began selling his stock. The main allegations against White: scores of conversations with former Enron colleagues and travelling with his wife by military aircraft for non-government purposes.
That is thin gruel, and even those misdeeds are disputed. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, Enron inquisitor-in-chief for the Democrats, by himself could not topple a high-ranking official. White's friends believe poison has been thrown into his well by associates in the Pentagon's E-Ring, where policymakers reside. The infection has crossed the Potomac to Capitol Hill, where members of Congress most interested in military policy have asked their Defense Department contacts whether it might be time for White to go.
Today's Pentagon team clearly is no band of brothers, and high-level Washington never has been suitable for the faint of heart. I visited with White in his Pentagon office last week, and he seemed bewildered by the process. In the nation's capital, people are driven from public office without trial or even clear indictment.
That White may join that fraternity of unfortunates became clear to his close associates April 2 when the Wall Street Journal carried an editorial page column by Eliot A. Cohen asserting that White should "step down" even if he did nothing wrong. His mere association with a rogue corporation, wrote Cohen, undermines devotion of the Army officer corps to their mission and troops. Moreover, Cohen criticized generals holding civilian Defense posts, declaring that Gen. George Marshall "was not particularly effective as secretary of defense."
Cohen's arguments impressed White's friends at the Pentagon less than his credentials. A defense intellectual, he is a professor at John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (where Paul Wolfowitz was dean until becoming deputy secretary of defense last year). Cohen also worked under Wolfowitz at the Pentagon during the first Bush administration. Those links explain why Wolfowitz called White to assert his disagreement with Cohen's thesis.
Still, friends wonder whether White was victimized by undercover tensions between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. White has been assigned some duties (such as administering detained prisoners at Guantanamo) normally handled by the deputy secretary. Nevertheless, suspicions of Wolfowitz poisoning the Army secretary's well are much less
substantial than even allegations against White.
Those accusations are based on whether White used inside information in selling Enron stock and was too slow of disposing of stock options. There does not seem much there, but White is under attack because of some 80 telephone calls with Enron executives. "Most of those people were friends of mine, before we went to Enron," White told me, adding that he was sympathizing with their plight.
White's potentially biggest problem is not connected with Enron. The Defense Department Inspector General is investigating how the Whites last month, aboard a government jet on official business, stopped in Aspen, Colo., to close the sale of their $6.5 million vacation home. "You almost feel like an idiot," a regretful White told me.
Until coming to Washington, Tom White lived a success story. The son of a Detroit bus driver, he became the first member of his West Point class ('67) to become a general. The highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran left the Army after 23 years for Enron and became a multi-millionaire. He sought his present job at age 58, seeking to help ordinary soldiers through tough times. He is still on the job (in Afghanistan at this writing), but nobody can predict how long that will be.